William Henry Jackson (1843–1942) was one of the best-known photographers of the American West. He is renowned for his photographs of Colorado’s mountain scenery, many of which show now-famous landmarks such as Mount of the Holy Cross, Garden of the Gods, Mesa Verde, and Royal Gorge. His photographs captured the vastness of Colorado’s beauty and helped lure many people to the state from the late nineteenth century onward.
Today, Jackson’s images provide Americans with a glimpse of the American West on the cusp of great change, helping them see what familiar landscapes looked like as humanity ushered in the age of industrial mining, timber harvesting, large-scale irrigation projects, and other modern developments.
William Henry Jackson was born to George Hallock Jackson and Harriet Maria Allen on April 4, 1843, in Keeseville, New York. Jackson learned to paint from his mother, a hobbyist. He worked as a colorist at photography studios in Troy, New York, and Rutland, Vermont, where he learned photographic technique. At the age of nineteen Jackson enlisted in the Civil War, serving for nine months in Company K of the Twelfth Vermont Infantry. While en route to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Jackson’s regiment was diverted to Westminster, Maryland, to guard trains—missing one of the war’s bloodiest affairs. After the war, Jackson returned home, where he enjoyed landscape painting. A disagreement with his sweetheart precipitated Jackson’s move West.
In 1868 Jackson relocated to Omaha, Nebraska, and opened a photography studio with his brother Ed. A year later William married Mollie Greer. She and their baby died during childbirth in 1872. In 1873 Jackson married Emilie Painter. Their union produced three children: Clarence, Louise, and Hallie.
A chance meeting with Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, director of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, changed the course of Jackson’s career. In early 1870, Jackson became the official photographer of the “Hayden Survey.” For nine seasons, Jackson worked with Hayden to document the landscape in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. In 1871 Jackson photographed the Yellowstone area, and his photographs helped convince members of Congress to designate Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park on March 1, 1872.
Over the next five years of the survey, Jackson photographed Colorado from its southwest corner across the Rocky Mountains. His photographic equipment consisted of bulky cameras supported by sturdy tripods, fragile glass plate negatives, and a portable darkroom, including bottles of chemicals. Jackson processed the negatives in the field, allowing him to see his results immediately. If he was dissatisfied, Jackson could wipe off the photographic emulsion and reuse the negative.
During the Colorado years of the survey, Jackson perfected his mountain views, photographed small towns, and took images of Native American life. He used a wide variety of photographic formats, from stereographs to spectacular, multiplate panoramas. His most popular subjects included several of Colorado’s Fourteeners, especially Mount of the Holy Cross. While Jackson made the first photographs of the Native American sites near Mesa Verde, the survey did not find the Cliff Palace, the most famous cliff dwelling in the area.
In 1879 Jackson, now a famous photographer, chose to open a studio in Denver. Jackson knew the state well, and with duplicate negatives from his survey work, he already had a strong inventory of Colorado views.
Commissions from the railroad industry supported Jackson for many years. He worked for the Baltimore & Ohio, Denver & Rio Grande, Mexican Central Railway, New York Central, Philadelphia & Reading, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. Some provided private cars, allowing Jackson and his traveling companions the freedom to stop at any location. His photographs of beautiful scenery along the railroad routes were displayed in railroad offices, sold to tourists, and used as the basis for engravings published in brochures and advertisements. Even those unable to leave home could purchase Jackson’s photographs.
The economic downturn of 1893 devastated Colorado’s economy, including Jackson’s business. At the same time, photographic printing technology and publishing methods were rapidly evolving, making it easier to mass produce half-tones and gravures. The original photographic print held less value. In addition, amateur photography gained popularity with the introduction of Kodak cameras.
Jackson desperately needed to change his business model and increase cash flow. An offer to join the World’s Transportation Commission, a three-year project to document railways and other types of transportation around the world, fit the bill. Harper’s Weekly magazine agreed to publish illustrated articles about the trip, based on Jackson’s photographs. Jackson photographed scenes in Egypt, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Siberia, and several other locations. Beset by budget problems, the trip lasted only eighteenth months.
In 1897 Jackson joined the Detroit Publishing Company, a major photography firm. A year later, the Jacksons left Denver and moved to Detroit. Jackson, a partner with the firm, contributed 20,000 negatives to the business. The company specialized in converting black-and-white photographs to color lithographs called Photochroms. Jackson’s images, now mass-produced in a range of sizes that included newly popular postcards, were sold in stores, in hotels, and through mail-order catalogs. Jackson made photographs for the Detroit Publishing Company until 1903, when he took over the role of plant manager. The company thrived until after World War I, going bankrupt in 1924.
In 1924 Jackson moved to Washington, DC. He lived with his daughter and resumed his interest in landscape painting. In 1936 Jackson painted four murals, based on the four major nineteenth-century geologic expeditions, for display at the Interior Department building in Washington. Jackson’s ghost-written autobiography, Time Exposure, was published in 1940.
On June 30, 1942, at the age of ninety-nine, William Henry Jackson died in New York City. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.